Long road ahead for Palestinians

Barbara Plett
BBC News

Palestinians have their new government - almost - but peace is another question.

Yasser Arafat finally accepted the cabinet list on Wednesday after a bitter dispute with his Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas, about who should be on it.

All that is needed now is approval from the Palestinian parliament - the Legislative Council.

That is meant to pave the way for the publication of the latest peace plan known as the roadmap.

A new government under a new prime minister was the American condition for Palestinian entry to a peace process.

It is not at all clear, though, upon what road the Palestinians have embarked.

Militants crackdown

According to the international and Israeli agenda, the new government is expected to oversee a crackdown on militant groups.

Israel has said it will not take any steps on the path to peace until that happens.

That is one reason the dispute between Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas boiled down to who should be interior minister.

Mr Arafat was unhappy with Mr Abbas's choice, Mohammed Dahlan, a former Gaza security chief.

Mr Dahlan has said he is prepared to disarm the militias by force if necessary, which made him the preferred candidate of both the Israelis and Americans.

It was not only Mr Arafat who objected to Mr Dahlan's appointment.

Senior leaders in his Fatah movement, the true centre of Palestinian political power, were also uneasy.

Many think it is impossible to crack down on the militants unless Israel first eases the occupation and ends military operations, otherwise they will face popular opposition.

And they have to take on not only powerful Islamic groups such as Hamas, but also the radical Fatah splinter group, al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which is loyal to Yasser Arafat and to the gun.

Power struggle

But the dispute was also about power.

Yasser Arafat saw the prime minister's ministerial choices as a threat to his leadership, especially since America and Israel have made no secret of their plans to marginalise him. So he came out fighting for his survival.

On the face of it, he lost the power struggle, because he agreed to give Mohammed Dahlan a security position in the cabinet, although not as interior minister.

But some Palestinian sources said the old leader also gained.

During the week-long dispute he won the support of many in Fatah, and he demonstrated that Mahmoud Abbas needed his approval to form a cabinet.

International support

Crucially, Mr Abbas only got that approval because the international community intervened on his behalf, not because Fatah or the Palestinian people rallied to his support.

Some observers say Mr Arafat deliberately used the dispute to further paint Mr Abbas into a corner.

"This is not a Palestinian cabinet, it's an American cabinet," he is reported to have said when he saw the ministerial list.

Many Palestinians already see Mahmoud Abbas and Mohammed Dahlan as leaders chosen by the United States rather than them.

If the two men move against the militias without an end to Israeli operations, that view may be strengthened.